Federal grants restored for incarcerated students

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Jan. 14, 2021 6:28 p.m.

Congress’ omnibus spending bill, passed in December, brings back Pell Grant funding for people pursuing education while in prison

Although coronavirus relief funding was the star of the show in the omnibus bill Congress passed last month, the Consolidated Appropriations Act also included an important piece of legislation for higher education in Oregon and across the country — the restoration of Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated people.

“We want prisons to be more than just places of punishment,” said James Ackerman, CEO and President of Prison Fellowship — a Christian nonprofit which hosted a roundtable Wednesday with representatives from the Department of Education, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Salem’s Corban University, and others.


Ackerman said the goal is for prisons to be “places where you can turn your life around and step into new beginnings, and part of that is education. Providing a man or woman in prison the opportunity to get a college degree serves society in so many ways.”

Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville is Oregon's only women's prison.

Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville is Oregon's only women's prison.

Allison Frost / OPB

The Pell Grant eligibility provision will have a direct effect on several college programs in Oregon that are run in coordination with correctional facilities.

Dr. Amit Bhatia directs Corban University’s undergraduate degree program at Oregon State Correctional Institution, and has been teaching and developing the program since August 2019.

“The impact on students has been remarkable,” Bhatia said. “I’ve had students, these are adults in custody — inmates, who have broken down in tears in class out of gratitude for the opportunity that has been given to them at this stage, at this juncture in life.”

Bhatia said the new Pell eligibility means easier access to funding for the program.

“Our program is privately funded … It costs $5,500 for one year’s worth of tuition and books and supplies to take one student through,” Bhatia said. “So, it would ease the financial burden.”

Federal Pell Grants were created for low-income students in 1965 — which included incarcerated students.

“There was really a plethora of prison partnerships with universities to provide higher education inside prison,” Heather Rice-Minus, with Prison Fellowship, said, “hundreds and hundreds of programs across the country.”

That came to an end in 1994 with an amendment to a crime bill that effectively denied all incarcerated people access to Pell funding, Rice-Minus said, which led to an “immediate decline” in prison higher education programs.


Since then, there have been efforts to experiment in partially restoring eligibility, Rice-Minus said. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education began creating “Second Chance Pell sites” – providing Pell Grant funding at about 70 colleges and universities working in 100 prisons.

“But those Pell sites are limited, and not all incarcerated students who are eligible for a Pell Grant can access them if they’re not at the facilities where these pilot sites are,” Rice-Minus said. “For years we have seen legislation … to reinstate Pell grants to all eligible incarcerated students.”

This most recently passed omnibus bill was the first bipartisan congressional effort, Rice-Minus said.

In Oregon, Chemeketa Community College, in partnership with the Oregon State Correctional Institution, Oregon State Penitentiary and Santiam Correctional Institution, is one of those Second Chance Pell sites, according to the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid.

“Chemeketa Community College’s involvement in the Second Chance Pell Grant pilot program since its inaugural start in 2016 has been extremely rewarding for both the students and our staff alike,” the community college told OPB. “We’ve watched the participants of the program change their lives for the better and through our annual graduation ceremonies inside the facilities, we have been able to see first-hand what the program has meant to their friends and families.”

Chemeketa said the program has resulted in high graduation rates. Of the students who received Second Change Pell grants in the 2016-17 year, more than 65% graduated within 150% of the normal program time.

“This far exceeds the national average for all students (not just incarcerated ones), of 25% for first-time, full-time undergraduate students at public two-year institutions,” The college said. “The students also earn high marks in the classroom, with the last graduating class finishing with an average GPA of a 3.50.”

For graduates of Chemeketa’s program, recidivism rates are about 20% lower than the state’s average, the school said.

Rice-Minus with Prison Fellowship noted since the nature of the Second Chance program is “experimental,” it was assumed those pilot sites would not be permanent, but now with the passage of the omnibus bill, all eligible incarcerated students in the nation will have access to Pell Grants regardless of their sentences or the crimes they have committed.

“We know from abundant research that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students are some of the most eager, hardest-working and highest achieving students,” said Deb Arthur, a professor with Portland State University. She has taught students at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Oregon’s only women’s prison. “[I]t is a boon not only for individual students to be able to access the transformation that comes from higher education, but also for PSU to be able to invite and welcome these talented and diverse students.”

Arthur said once Pell eligibility takes effect for incarcerated students, the students “will be able to pay tuition, and then our program has a solid funding base.”

The bill may not take effect until July 2023 at the latest.

“The department, and the secretary, has latitude for early implementation … which would allow them to expedite that if the practices and processes and procedures can be put into place,” Scott Stump, Assistant Secretary for Career, Technical and Adult Education in the U.S. Department of Education, said Wednesday.

Stump said state departments of correction and other entities with oversight of prisons will now need to be a part of the approval process for Pell Grant eligibility.

“That’s what our Federal Student Aid office will need to provide technical assistance on to really create a new process to ensure that the programs are operating in the best interests of students,” Stump said. “But that may be something that could take a bit of time.”


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